Climate change: the heat is on

6 years, 8 months ago

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Climate change is the greatest risk facing humanity, and is already imposing substantial costs. What are our obligations as IPRA Members? By Bill Royce.



Climate change generates a lot of heat - physical, political and emotional. Just ask any journalist or scientist who has received a storm of hate mail from ´deniers´.
 
Right now, pension funds face pressure to divest shares in fossil fuel producers, recalling campaigns against apartheid and tobacco. In the US and Europe, climate change deeply divides public opinion. It was the hottest issue in Australia´s recent Federal election. The UN climate talks in Warsaw last November witnessed bitter arguments as nations try to forge a new global agreement by 2015.
 
As practitioners our client base encompasses a broad spectrum of views towards climate change. Do we have any special responsibilities in relation to climate change?  If so, how do we honour these?
 
1. We need to respect the science
 
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts". To provide informed counsel, we must understand climate science, the present disequilibrium, the scale of early impacts and the decarbonisation mandate.  
 
Climate Science
 
Earth´s climate system is governed by basic laws of physics, chemistry and biology. 
 
The sun delivers each year about 1370 W/m2 of solar radiation to the upper atmosphere; geometric effects and reflection limits the energy absorbed at the typical surface location to around 235 W/m2 annually. Without the thin band of gases in the troposphere and stratosphere the average surface temperature on Earth would be minus 18oC - a frozen, lifeless planet.
 
It is what happens in that 50 km of lower atmosphere that makes Earth habitable and now also poses a grave risk. A small volume of naturally occurring gases - chiefly carbon-dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), ozone (O3) and water vapour (H2O) - traps enough of the sun´s radiation to keep average surface temperature around 14°C, while also releasing enough back into space to avoid overheating.  This greenhouse effect is the Earth´s thermostat; and of these greenhouse gases (GHGs) CO2 is the ´swing´ regulator. 
 
The Earth system is extremely sensitive. Relatively small changes in the atmospheric concentration of GHGs produce changes in average temperature; relatively small changes in temperature trigger relatively rapid change in weather patterns, species range, ice cover and ocean acidity, and slower change in ocean temperature and sea level.  
 
Atmospheric concentration of GHGs is measured in parts per million (ppm). One ppm is roughly one minute in two years (or 0.0001%). We now have paleoclimate data that stretches back 550 million years.  Over this period, through glacial times with seas 120 metres lower and hot eras with seas 200 metres higher than today, atmospheric concentration of CO2 has ranged only between 0.018% and 0.6%.  This truly is ´the God of Small Things´ at work. 
 
A new disequilibrium
 
There is a natural cycle for CO2 production (by volcanic gassing, decomposing organic matter, wildfires, and living organisms) balanced by carbon "sinks" which absorb CO2 (chiefly plants which convert it into carbohydrates and oxygen, and oceans which convert it to carbonic acid). 
 
From the birth of civilisation around 12,000 BCE until relatively recently, this natural cycle was in equilibrium with atmospheric CO2 stable at 260-280 ppm. 
 
Since the Industrial Revolution we have increasingly disturbed this equilibrium by burning fossil fuels, releasing ancient CO2 buried millions of years ago. This anthropomorphic (manmade) CO2 and deforestation (the second largest source of CO2 emissions) have led scientists to suggest that we are now in a new epoch - the Anthropocene
 
The physical science report from the IPCC last September concluded that the 30-year period 1983-2012 was the warmest in the last 1,400 years. Atmospheric CO2 has risen 40% since records began in 1850. In May this year, it briefly reached 400 ppm, the highest level in the last 800,000 years and possibly in the last 20 million years. 
 
We currently add a further 2.5 ppm every year. At this rate we have 20-30 years before concentrations exceed 450 ppm - the consensus ´safe´ upper limit.  By safe, that means a 50% chance of holding the temperature rise (since pre-industrial times) to 2°C and avoiding dangerous climate change which would severely disrupt communities, ecosystems and economies.  
 
Early impacts
 
Combined land and ocean temperatures have risen by 0.85°C since 1850. Even at less than 1°C temperature rise, we are witnessing accelerated ice loss in glaciers, and the West Antarctic and Greenland ice-sheets. Arctic sea ice is both shrinking and thinning. There is significant heat uptake and CO2 absorption in the oceans, accelerating sea level rise and acidification.
 
Extreme weather is the ´new normal´ - more heat waves and severe droughts, more heavy rainfall and flooding, often at the same time in different parts of the same country. This comes with a steep cost: in 2012 alone, extreme weather events in the US caused economic losses of $110 billion. 
 
We are also witnessing the greatest loss of biodiversity since the last meteor strike, as local habitats warm faster than species´ migration capacity.  We are losing frogs, birds, butterflies and plant life at an alarming rate.  
 
There are still areas of scientific uncertainty - mostly around the sequence, timing and scale of major impacts. How much warming will trigger dramatic ´feedback´ mechanisms that amplify climate change - e.g., the release of huge stores of frozen methane from permafrost and the ocean floors? 
 
According to the IPCC, on current trends we could exceed 4°C by 2100.  What would this mean? Very likely most permafrost would have melted, glaciers and ice sheets would have lost significant mass, low-lying land and cities would be flooded, ferocious heat waves would scorch the earth, the Gulf Stream would have weakened and crop yields would have fallen. Many parts of the planet would be uninhabitable. Wars would probably be fought over fresh water access.
 
Decarbonisation mandate
 
If we are to stay within the ´safe´ boundary of a 2°C temperature rise, the policy mix needs to result in zero net emissions to the atmosphere from fossil fuels during the second half of this century.  
 
The IPCC report set a carbon budget (an emissions ceiling) of 1,000 gigatons to stay within 2°C. More than half of this budget (531 Gt) had been emitted by 2011. This implies that a substantial amount of known fossil fuel reserves, which would release 3,800 extra gigatons, needs to stay in the ground. 
 
´Net zero´ is possible only with early action and unprecedented international cooperation. It will be costly, but less so than not taking action.
 
2. Obligations arising from our UN status
 
IPRA has consultative status with both ECOSOC and UNESCO, which is granted to non-government organisations that wish to contribute to the achievement of the UN´s objectives. Article 1 of IPRA´s Code requires Members to observe the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  
 
Climate change is a UN System priority. UNESCO and the World Meteorological Organisation are jointly responsible for the Climate Knowledge workstream (science, assessment, monitoring and early warning). Promoting mitigation and adaptation, including through enhanced education and public awareness, is a strategic objective in UNESCO´s Strategy for Action on Climate Change.   
 
Both institutionally and as individual Members we have an obligation to advance the UN´s agenda on climate action, including the work of the UNFCCC. As communicators we also have a responsibility to use our knowledge and skills to help improve public awareness of climate change and the decarbonisation mandate. 
 
3.   Obligations arising from the Code of Conduct
 
Additional responsibilities relevant to climate change arise under Articles Seven (accuracy), Eight (falsehood), Ten (disclosure) and Fourteen (influence).  
 
We should endeavour at all times to ensure that our activities and those of our clients accurately reflect the scientific facts and implications, and that we do not disseminate false or misleading information, intentionally or unintentionally.
 
It would be inconsistent with the Code to disseminate information that questions the reality of climate change; disputes the fundamental science base; or understates the urgency of action.
 
Our advocacy work should embrace the Guide for Responsible Corporate Engagement in Climate Policy jointly developed by the UN Global Compact, UNFCCC and UNEP in cooperation with the World Resources Institute (WRI), CDP, WWF, Ceres and The Climate Group. 
 
4.   Implications for client counsel
 
First, we need to engage clients on climate change as a business risk. Regulators and investors are seeking assurances about resilience. A recent CDP report found "most businesses have little knowledge of their exposure to weather and climate change risks across their operations and value chain" and few consider timeframes of 10 years or longer.
 
Second, we should only accept and perform assignments which are consistent with our obligations. For example, there is legitimate debate about policies and pathways to zero net emissions, but we should not accept assignments from companies or associations whose conscious intention is to frustrate or derail this transition. 
 
Finally, we should help fossil fuel clients understand the long-term risk of stranded assets if they do not dramatically reduce emissions through technologies like carbon capture and storage and by carbon-offsetting investment in renewable energy. It´s no longer just a risk to their reputation or social licence to operate.
 
 
Thought Leader Profile
Bill Royce is SVP Cleantech Energy & Sustainability EMEA, Weber Shandwick.  The views expressed here are personal. Disclosure: in addition to counselling a wide range of energy clients, he has consulted to WWF and The Climate Group which both contributed to the Guide for Responsible Corporate Engagement in Climate Policy.
 

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Bill Royce

Bill Royce is SVP Cleantech Energy & Sustainability EMEA, Weber Shandwick. He has consulted to WWF and The Climate Group which both contributed to the Guide for Responsible Corporate Engagement in Climate Policy.

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